You may have been hearing about an audit of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and wondering how this might impact the roads you ride on. The quick answer is that it has no direct impact, but it might have a profound indirect one. For an explanation read on.
Last year the legislature ordered the Legislative Audit Bureau, a well-respected nonpartisan agency, to take a look at the DOT’s state highway program. The word “audit” is a little misleading here. The LAB does, in fact, look at the books, but its audits are really more about how a program and a state agency are carrying out tasks given to them by the legislature.
In this case the LAB was only asked to look at one program within the DOT, albeit its biggest one: state highways. So, it looked at numbered highways as opposed to highways with letters or names. Your local Highway C is managed by your county and your Schroeder Road is probably managed by your town or city or village. The state highway system is just under 12,000 miles while local roads make up just over 100,000 miles. And, since most state highways are busier than local roads, chances are that you do most of your cycling on local roads rather than state highways. Still, there are substantial miles of state highways that are suitable for biking.
The audit also did not look at the DOT’s work in the area of cycling, pedestrians, transit or other programs. But the LAB made findings that will surely influence the state budget debate this spring and that, in turn, will impact cycling.
Here are the highlights of the report:
* The DOT has been way underestimating the cost of highway projects. In fact, over a decade the department’s estimates were off by about 100%. Nineteen projects reviewed actually cost a total of $1.5 billion when they had been estimated to cost $772 million.
* Despite all that investment, our state highways are deteriorating. The percentage of highways in good condition decreased from 53% in 2010 to just 41% in 2015.
* We’re stacking up poorly with our neighbors. About 75% of highways in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan were in good condition, 66% in Illinois and 64% in Minnesota. The U.S. average was 63%. Iowa came in at 55%, but still well above Wisconsin.
* Local road conditions, while not the focus of the report, came out pretty well, with 90% of them reported to be in good or better shape. You can check out the conditions in your county by looking up Appendix 6 in the report.
* The LAB recommended improvements in DOT’s processes that might save about $40 million a year.
So, how does all this impact your favorite cycling route? Well, the DOT was already looking at a funding gap of several hundred million dollars in its next budget. But now there’s reason to believe that even those numbers are based on wildly low cost estimates, so that the real deficit could be almost twice as much. And the $40 million in potential annual savings won’t go very far if the deficit is really between $1 billion and $2 billion.
All of which puts even more pressure on the legislature to come up with a way to pay for all this. The net result of the audit probably makes the transportation budget an even a bigger issue this year than it already had been. And, of course, with so much at stake for cycling, especially when it comes to local road conditions, we’ll have to keep a close eye on how this plays out.